‘The best and the worst — the first’ history of Onchiota

Curiosity compels amateur historian to document hamlet’s rich backstories

Phil Fitzpatrick stands in front of the former Tormey’s store in Onchiota. Fitzpatrick’s history of the hamlet, “Onchiota Remembered,” includes this store’s owner, Hayden J. Tormey, whom Fitzpatrick describes as “a prototype of the Adirondack man.” (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

ONCHIOTA — The man who wrote the first comprehensive history of the hamlet of Onchiota, “Onchiota Remembered,” is a self-proclaimed non-historian and non-writer, but he found himself in the right place at the right time to do the job.

Phil Fitzpatrick does not have formal training in English or history, but he does have a healthy supply of curiosity and, since he retired, a bit of extra time on his hands.

“Curiosity is to blame,” Fitzpatrick said. After spending years living in the small community, he began researching its history.

“I got the notion that there was a book to be written,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s the best and the worst — the first.”

Originally from western Rhode Island, Fitzpatrick was living in Vermont when he first noticed Onchiota in 1988, on his way to Northbrook Lodge at Osgood Pond.

The Stony Wold Sanatorium, in the former Kushaqua Lodge, was a tuberculosis hospital in the early 1900s. It was one of the many ideas that came to fruition and kept industry in Onchiota. (Photo provided)

“When I first saw Onchiota, I thought that it was no more than a curious and amusing bend in the road,” Fitzpatrick said. His opinion of the community has greatly changed in his time living there, and even more in his time researching its history and talking to its residents.

He and his wife Briggs Larkin bought a property right near the “bend” in the spring of 2011 and moved in that August.

Adapting to the times

Patients sit on a cure porch at the Stony Wold Sanatorium. (Photo provided)

He began collecting postcards and memorabilia from Onchiota, gradually exposing himself to the history of the resilient, multi-purpose and well-loved hamlet. Starting as a logging community in the early 1900s, it has seen a wide variety of industries come and go.

For years at a time, it was home to the Kushaqua Lodge, Stony Wold tuberculosis sanatorium, Paul Ransom’s Adirondack-Florida School, Buster Crabbe’s Camp Meenagha for Boys, St. Joseph’s Seminary, Camp Wa A Wa and currently the Six Nations Indian Museum, founded by Ray Fadden.

“So many dreams came true here,” Fitzpatrick said.

He said because of the consistent success of the different projects in Onchiota — from health to hunting to history — he chose to subtitle his book, “A History of The Most Remarkable Adirondack Hamlet.”

“I’d love to have someone try and prove me wrong,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that the people here adapted to the progress of history.”

"Onchiota Remembered: by Phil Fitzpatrick

With each new industry, old buildings were used for different purposes. For example, the porches of Kushaqua Lodge, where sportsmen reclined after hunting and fishing, became the porches where tuberculosis sufferers sat in the open air to cure from the respiratory infection.

Toward the beginning of the book, Fitzpatrick poses an idea for readers to think on as they read about the men and women who brought industry, people and life to Onchiota.

“I invite you to consider whether or not people I introduce you to were heroes,” the book reads.

Personally, Fitzpatrick said, “I think they’re all heroes.”

Creation of a history

Fitzpatrick began his research on the New York Historic Newspapers website, reading articles from the New York Times, Press-Republican and Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

“Newspapers used to report everything,” Fitzpatrick said, giving the example of notices describing who was vacationing with whom and where. “I spent a lot of time looking at crummy images that were completely uninteresting.”

He gathered a lot from that surplus of information, but he had to take his research offline. He spent a lot of time going around to different locations and organizations, talking with people and stumbling upon history by “serendipity.”

He said the historians, librarians and curators he talked to were very open with their records.

“It was made easy by the people who had the information,” Fitzpatrick said.

The process was also expedited by his innovative idea of using a camera as a scanner to photograph hundreds of documents and photos, creating a digital record of what was previously only known on paper. Fitzpatrick’s website, pjfadkmemories.com, has the entire collection of hundreds of photos on its servers.

Fitzpatrick said the process of publishing his book, which he described as a “vanity project,” was simplified by the sub-industry of book publishers willing to publish millions of people’s amateur work.

“Anybody can do that,” Fitzpatrick said. “If work isn’t a four-letter word, then it’s easy.”

Fitzpatrick had previously published a collection of his poems and his own research into his family history. He said he thinks his desire to research and preserve history is a symptom of getting older.

“I didn’t expect to be pleased,” Fitzpatrick said of the book, but added that he was surprised to find he was.

He hopes his work inspires others to look into the pasts of other Adirondack hamlets, each of which he said likely has an interesting, unreported history. He especially said he wants to see someone do a history of Bloomingdale.

Fitzpatrick’s book is for sale at the Village Mercantile in Saranac Lake, 7 Gables Antiques in Onchiota, on Amazon and on his own website.